At the government-run "Internet Kafe" near my hotel in the Ashgabat suburb of Berzengi, the small room is dominated by a massive portrait of the president, Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov, framed by garlands of fake flowers, surveying the half-dozen computers.
A table below the portrait displays four copies of the Ruhnama, the "holy" book written by the former president. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. "Passport, please," says the young attendant, wearing the traditional long, embroidered dress of the Turkmen, which is required of all female government employees. I try to check the news on EurasiaNet, and get an error message: "Access Denied."
It's hardly an inviting atmosphere, and so it's not surprising that I'm the only patron of the café.
The scene is very different at an unnamed café in the Mir district of Ashgabat, in a basement behind an unmarked door in a Soviet-era apartment block. There, to a soundtrack of loud hip-hop, a packed crowd of teenagers use chat sites like Ashgabat Chat or tmchat.ru. The attendant, also a young woman, is wearing a tank top and shorts, and two girls at the computer next to me explain that they are belly dancers and are downloading new music to dance to.
When Berdymukhamedov took power early this year, he promised several reforms, such as reinstating the final year of high school and to double pensions. But it was his pledge to open Internet access to every citizen that seemed to be the clearest signal that he intended to open up Turkmenistan and end the isolation that was the hallmark of the previous president, Sapurmurat Niyazov. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
Coming up on a year since Berdymukhamedov took power, however, the Internet is not really any more accessible than it was under Niyazov. There are only a handful of government-run Internet cafes in the capital, Ashgabat, which opened in March. I counted five, and no one I talked to seemed to know how many there were total, typical of this information-poor nation. There are also a handful of cafes in regional capitals.
In my several visits, there was never more than one person besides me using the cafes, and several people told me they didn't like using them.
The greatest reason is that the cost is prohibitive for most people here 90,000 manat an hour, close to $4. "You can't really say there is Internet access if people can't afford it," a western diplomat tells me.
In addition, as the president's massive photo suggests, the government is clearly watching where you surf.
"You have to give your passport at those cafes, and so people are intimidated, they think the government will be watching what they look at," one local tells me. (At another government café in the center of Ashgabat, however, I visited three times and was never asked for my passport.)
Several sites, especially news sites that deal with Turkmenistan, are blocked. In addition to EurasiaNet.org, the list of forbidden sites includes Ferghana.ru, Centrasia.ru, Prima News and Gunogdar.org, a Turkmenistan opposition web site. The site for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty is not blocked, while that of the Voice of America is. There are other apparent holes in the government's filter, as the site for Transitions Online. No general news sites, such as those of the BBC, New York Times or CNN appear to be blocked.
Meanwhile, much more popular Internet centers had already existed for years before Berdymukhamedov came to power, and offer a far better surfing experience.
Internet has been available for several years at US Embassy-sponsored "American Corners" in Ashgabat and three of the four regional capitals.
At those centers, anyone can use the Internet free of charge and no sites appear to be blocked (although the US also requires a one-time passport check). These have a more subdued atmosphere than the private cafes, with studious teenagers quietly emailing.
There is also slow dial-up access available, but that is rare it costs about $50 a month, and it's generally believed that home surfing is also the easiest form of access for the government to monitor.
The Mir center costs 30,000 manat (about $1.25) an hour, and no web sites appeared to be blocked (although I did have to show my passport as part of a one-time registration process). Another private center is in the inaptly named World Trade Complex (in fact a small mall) in the center of Ashgabat, and costs 60,000 manat (about $2.50) an hour.
Nevertheless, the Mir café which is run by an organization for disabled people as a fundraising activity is nervous about losing its license, one patron tells me. "The government is afraid of Internet cafes because it's hard to monitor who is looking at what in them," he says.
Josh is a freelance journalist based in Washington, D.C. From April through September 2007 he is traveling through the Caucasus and Central Asia to write a serial travelogue for EurasiaNet.org.